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March 2019: Monthly Environmental News Roundup

1.Microplastic menace

A recent study has shown that microplastics, which are less than 5mm in size have contaminated all over the world. The contamination has been found in UK lakes, rivers, underground water of US, China rivers, Spain coasts etc. These have found to harbor harmful microbes and cause gastroenteritis and wound infections. Other health effects of their consumption on people are yet to be found. Analysis shows River Tame having 1000 small plastic pieces per liter and the remote places having 2 or 3 pieces per liter. These plastics are mostly shed by vehicle tyres, plastic pellet spillage, synthetic clothing and are carried away by rain or wind. Researchers are working to uncover more details about them.

2. Setback for UK government – Fracking case

As a major setback to UK government’s plan to make fracking easier the court called the fracking policy making unlawful as it found it necessary to consider climate changes and other scientific evidences in deciding the policy. In the case brought by anti-fracking campaigners, judgment suggested that gas from fracking may not be considered as low carbon fuel source. Besides clarifying that the government has not acted responsibly, this also gives a guidance that objections to fracking on climate change impact basis are to be considered at local planning level. The government is expected to present its side of arguments on this.

3. Rs.500 crores fine for Volkswagen

The NGT (National Green Tribunal) has directed it to pay auto major Volkswagen(VW) within 2 months Rs. 500 crores fine for damaging the environment using cheat device in their diesel cars in India. In November last year, the green panel had directed VW to pay Rs.100 crores interim amount for environmental damages. The NGT recommended Rs.171.34 crores as health damages fine for air pollution caused in Delhi due to vehicle emissions. Volkswagen India had recalled 3.23 lakhs vehicles for violation of emission norms. The tests by ARAI had shown the emissions from these vehicles to be 1.1 to 2.6 times higher than BS-IV norms. However Volkswagen said that it did not face any charges regarding violating emission norms in India, unlike in the US.

4. Mass production of Green crackers soon

Four months back, Supreme Court of India banned manufacture of polluting firecrackers but allowed bursting of green crackers and entrusted the task of formulating the their chemical composition to CSIR and NEERI. Now CSIR and NEERI told the apex court that they have a formula that reduces the PM2.5 pollutants by 25-30% minimum and claim to have successfully tested light emitting fireworks in PESO presence. The approval for this is anticipated by April end and bulk production is expected to start by May. However a petition has been filed stating the green crackers still contain barium, the usage of which was earlier opposed by the court. Court has asked the center to file its response.

5. Upcoming elections, green elections?

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has in its order asked Election Commission, Union Environment Ministry and Central Pollution control board to take a call on usage of hazardous plastics in banners, hoardings, etc for the upcoming general elections. India has committed to completely phase out single-use plastics by 2022. These plastics are found to pollute the soil and water causing impacts on human health and environment.

6. Gurgaon most polluted city in the world

Data compiled in IQAirVisual 2018 World Air Quality Report reveals 5 Indian cities in the top 10 most polluted cities in the world, with Gurgaon and Ghaziabad taking the first and second spot. Delhi is in the 11th position. While the permissible PM2.5 limits set by National Ambient Air Quality Standards and WHO are 40ug/m3 and 10ug/m3 respectively, the reading for Delhi for 2018 is 113.5 ug/m3. The report stated that the average PM2.5 concentration for cities as a whole is 6 times more than the recommended limit.  Common contributors for PM2.5 pollution are vehicle exhaust, industry emission, biomass burning, coal combustion.

7. Plastic import rules amended

In 2015, though the Indian government banned plastics import, the following year it allowed imports carried by agencies in Special economic zones (SEZ). This loophole resulted in increase in PET bottle scrap and flakes imports from 12,000 tons in 2016-17 to 48000 tons in the next year. The center has announced amended rules which prohibit solid plastic waste import in India including in the SEZs. This amendment was made to Hazardous and Other Waste (Management and Transboundary Movement) Rules, 2016.

8.  4% green buildings in India – new survey

A new study indicated that 4% of buildings in India are green and found lack of technical expertise and funding for improvements are barriers in improving percentage of green buildings. Creating structures and using environmentally responsible and resource efficient processes throughout the life cycle of the building is Green building concept. The Survey conducted by Johnson Controls Building Technologies and Solutions covered 20 countries and found the global average to be 14%. Survey indicated that cities are looking to improve sustainability and environment while reducing costs and improving public safety.

9. Formula for Environmental compensation computation.

A special committee formed on NGT direction has proposed a formula to calculate Environmental Compensation (EC) for providing the pollution victims immediate relief as well as to fund long term remedies.  As per this formula, EC is a multiple of industrial sector’s pollution index (PI), Days of pollution violation (N), index representing scale of polluting plant operation, location factor. In any case a compensation of Rs. 5000 per day to the victim is proposed. However People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and environmental activists say they are writing to CPCB to increase this to Rs 15000 and to also consider ground water pollution and increase base factors so that enough amount could be obtained for remediation. 

10. Microbial hitchhikers

Findings of University of Stirling have confirmed that nurdles or tiny plastic beads in beaches, seas act as rafts carrying harmful bacteria and there is danger of the pathogens carried over large distances. These plastics protect the pathogens bound to them from the UV rays which normally kill them. 90% nurdles from EU-designated beaches are found to be contaminated with gastroenteritis causing ViIbrio and 45% from diarrhea causing E Coli. While only these two bacteria are tested, presence of more pathogens is expected. It is yet unknown if these microbial hitchhikers can survive longer floating in the sea.

11. Modified house plants turn purifiers

A research by Stuart Strand, environmental engineer at University of Washington and team showed simple DNA tweaks could give plants ability to degrade air pollutants. They inserted a synthetic version of rabbit gene into the Devil’s Ivy and found that the modified plant could suck chloroform and benzene and turn them into harmless molecules. The key is to bring as much air in contact with the plant. Further work is needed to see if it can be modified to remove other such volatile organic compounds. While this is appreciated by many, there are concerns over threats that these modified plants could pose, so the team is conducting series of tests for check this. These modified plants are expected to be available in US market within 2 years and maybe even sooner in Canada.

12. Bengaluru’s Public Bicycle Sharing system launched

Bengaluru’s full-fledged Public Bicycle sharing system with 3000 bicylces was launched by Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy. The Trin Trin dockless bicycle sharing system comprises app-based multiple private bicycle sharing operators renting bicycles at nominal prices to public.  400 parking hubs in Bengaluru have been identified by DULT (Directorate of Urban Land Transport) agency which oversees the project. While this PBS offers hope to reduce pollution woes in Bengaluru, most of the cyclists feel in the absence of dedicated lanes it would be difficult to pedal through the congested roads.

13. Biopolymer based water bottles from Cove

Cove has come up with water bottles made of PHA which is FDA approved biopolymer – 100% compostable. Cove says this will break safely down in soil, fresh water, ocean but time taken would depend on the things like humidity, temperature etc. Having done extensive testing Cove says it will take around 5 years for this to biodegrade in soil. Cove says the shelf life of these reusable bottles which work similar to regular plastic bottles is 6 months. Cove plans to launch them in California but it is not interested in shipping them across continents.

14. Norway’s revolutionary environmental scheme – 97% plastic bottles recycled.

Norwegian government’s environmental taxes that reward environmentally friendly companies have helped in getting the unbelievable success of the radical recycling program. Up to 97% of the plastic bottles are now recycled. As per this, the producers and importers of plastic bottles were charged around 40 cents per bottle environmental tax, which was lowered and finally dropped when more than 95% was recycled. Customers also had to pay mortgage for each bottle and they could get back coupons when they deposited the used bottles in any of the mortgage machines. The scheme’s success had made representatives from other countries visit to learn from this Norwegian model.

15. Petrol, Diesel from Plastic

An inventor from Southern France says he has developed a machine called Chrysalis which when fed with plastic bits at 450 degree Celsius pyrolise it that is decompose it with high heat to give liquid which is 65% diesel, 18% petrol, 10% gas, 7% carbon each of which is useful for generators, powering lamps, heating and for crayons respectively. This machine can presently give 1 litre of liquid fuel from 1 kg plastic. Plan is to develop a larger version by mid-2019 which can give 40 liters of fuel in an hour.

16. South Korea’s emergency social disaster handling plan

The recent record level fine dust that blanketed most of South Korea has led to emergency measures taken to tackle the social disaster set by air pollution. A series of bills were passed authorizing emergency fund usage to install high capacity air purifiers, encourage LPG vehicles, etc. Seven major cities hit record high concentration of PM2.5 particles, which pose serious health risks as per WHO. Emergency measures introduced by Seoul earlier like limiting vehicle use, curbing coal power plants, etc was not successful. South Korea has blamed China for 50-70% of the fine dust pollution carried from Chinese region to Korean peninsula. However China has rejected the claims asking South Korea to first check at home.

17.  Setback to Kandi Road Project

In a setback to Kandi Road Project the NGT banned the road construction passing through Corbett Tiger Reserve Core area. This road was expected to reduce the journey time between Ramnagar and Kotdwar by 2 hours. The original plan approved by Supreme Court in 2005 did not include this road. In 2017 the Uttarkhand government announced construction of road through Corbett Tiger Reserve and approved 3.14 crores funds for study on the project. An objection was raised against this proposed road stating the need to keep the Corbett National park inviolate for tiger conservation purposes.

18.  Urgent action needed to avoid deaths of millions

A report by 250 scientists and experts from over 70 countries states that drastic measures are to be taken for environmental protection else millions of premature deaths, child neurodevelopment impact, human fertility impact is possible. Report highlighted that the science, technology, finance are available, support from stakeholders is what is needed.  At the fourth UN Environment Assembly many pressing issues including food wastage, plastic pollution are expected to be tackled.  Urgent action is needed without further delay to achieve the Paris agreement goals. As per the report, it would be much more effective to have policy interventions addressing entire systems. According to the report policies and technologies are already present to give new development pathways for avoiding the risks and leading to healthy and prosperous life for all people.

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